NEW YORK — Charter airline Direct Air has suspended flights for at least two months, leaving passengers scrambling to get home and wondering if they'll get their money back.
The airline abruptly stopped flying Monday afternoon – at the peak of the spring break travel season – apparently because it couldn't pay its fuel bills. Direct Air, based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., says it will not fly again until May 15. Ticket holders were told to contact their credit card companies for refunds.
Public charter airlines like Direct Air don't operate under the same consumer protection rules as regularly scheduled airlines like United or American. Prices and schedules, for example, are not always guaranteed. And travelers don't have as much recourse in getting refunds or rescheduling flights.
That's frustrating for people like Doug Rendleman, whose wife Cathi is stuck in Lakeland, Fla., after flying from Springfield, Ill., on Friday to see their daughter play in a college softball tournament.
"If (a company) went belly up and they told me they can't sell me a couch or something – that's no big deal. But this is a nightmare" he said.
"When you fold a business that so many people rely on, you have to help" get them home, Rendleman said. He was trying to find another airline to fly his wife home.
Direct Air's marketing manager Ed Warneck told The Sun News newspaper in Myrtle Beach that the airline missed a fuel payment and the supplier cut it off. That left Direct Air no choice but to ground its fleet. It is unclear how many travelers were affected by the shutdown.
In a statement on its website Tuesday, the airline said it is evaluating strategic alternatives for its business.
Direct Air began flying in March of 2007. It serves 17 cities in the Midwest, East and South – mostly smaller markets where big airlines don't fly. But it's faced increased competition in recent years from a number of discount carriers including Spirit, Allegiant and Southwest.
And while all airlines are getting hit by higher oil prices, smaller airlines have less flexibility when costs skyrocket.
Airline consultant Robert Mann said that even if Direct Air resumes flights, it will likely be under increased government scrutiny after failing to provide service.
"It just doesn't seem like it has the financial wherewithal to survive," Mann said.
The shutdown also caught airport operators by surprise. Several said they were assisting passengers with reserving hotel rooms and making alternate travel arrangements.
One lucky passenger who did get a refund before the airline completely halted operations was Sean Davila of Lakeland, Fla. He found out he was stranded Monday in Springfield, Ill., when an agent at the airport told him that his flight was cancelled "indefinitely." Davila was able to get a refund from Direct Air and used that money to get a flight home to Florida on Delta.
Calls by The Associated Press to both the company's corporate and reservation numbers during business hours were answered Tuesday by a recording saying all agents were busy and referring callers to the airline website.
Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C. and Jack Jones in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this story.